It was Sara Zabihi’s eyes that first caught Joseph Kek’s attention.
Bright blue-green, they stood out against her dark hair and olive skin. They were, he decided, “the most beautiful eyes ever,” and he did everything in his power to keep her laughing and chatting at a party in the fall of 2006.
Sara was close friends with one of Joe’s University of Maryland fraternity brothers, and they began to run into each other regularly at football games and Greek events. With each meeting, Joe’s crush grew. Their conversations flowed easily and, as the children of Middle Eastern immigrants, they had a lot in common.
As they chatted via instant messenger one night, Joe worked up the courage to invite her to his fraternity formal. Sara immediately said yes.
She spent hours trying on friends’ dresses and primping to look her best. They spent all night dancing, and when Joe walked her home, he kissed her good night. “I was so comfortable with him,” she says. “I was just excited to talk to him next and see him again.”
They began meeting for lunch at a lake near campus and hung out more and more with each other’s friends.
“We laughed at the same things — had a similar sense of humor,” Joe says. “Our personalities just kind of clicked. We always were able to talk for hours.”
Before the fall semester ended, he decided they should go on a “real date,” so he took her to Mamma Lucia Restaurant in College Park. Looking back it seems cheesy, he says, but as a college sophomore it was a big deal.
Over winter break, Joe visited Sara and her family, who live in Rockville. She is the only daughter of Iranian immigrants, so her parents were very protective, but they welcomed Joe immediately.
“It was the weirdest thing, because I’ve never seen them be so open and accepting of anyone, so that was definitely a good sign,” she says.
Sara made an equally good impression on Joe’s Lebanese parents, who live in Gaithersburg. They stayed up night after night, talking on the phone until nearly dawn. He was outgoing and laid back while she was reserved and intense, but they seemed to bring out the best in each other.
“I don’t want to say I get sick of people easily, but it’s hard to find someone that you never get tired of,” Sara says. “That’s the first time in my life that I felt I could just keep being with someone day after day.”
When they returned to school in January, they decided to be exclusive. A month later, Sara told Joe she loved him. Not long after that, they agreed they would someday marry.
“We could see ourselves spending the rest of our lives together,” he says. “We just felt so comfortable with each other. We could be away from each other for like five minutes, and I’d already miss her.”
Plus, she says, their values always seemed to match up. “There’s a sense of respect to family and elders in Middle Eastern cultures, and Joe has that,” she says. “There’s an understanding that family is so important and family always come first.”
But as 20-year-olds, they knew people would think they were getting ahead of themselves, so they kept their plans private. They dated steadily for the next 18 months until Sara, who was a year ahead in school, graduated and moved home with her parents.
She worked full time during the day and went to Catholic University Law School at night. Joe would often go to Sara’s parents’ house to spend time with her, only to sit and watch her study because she was so overloaded with coursework. The next year, he graduated and became a management consultant. Their conflicting schedules meant they could see each other only one day a week, making it feel as if they were in a long-distance relationship. But neither of them wavered.
“He stood by me and was really supportive and grounded me,” remembers Sara, now 27.
In January 2012, on the fifth anniversary of the day they decided to be exclusive, Joe, now 26, took Sara to Williamsburg for a weekend getaway. As they sat in front of a fire drinking champagne, he proposed. In May, she graduated from law school, and in August the couple moved into an Arlington apartment together.
On April 6, they were married at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Many of Sara’s aunts and uncles traveled from Iran for the wedding, which included elements of her Persian background and his family’s Catholic faith.
At the end of the ceremony, they spoke their own vows to each other.
“Not once have we questioned our love for each other, or our desire to be together forever,” Sara said. “I am so lucky to have found you, and I cannot believe how fortunate I was to have met you at such a young age.”
“I promise to love you,” he told her. “Always and forever.”